I have always loved L.A. unconditionally. Though I was born and raised in Chicago, attended college in Colorado, and went to graduate school in Orange County, my family took trips here two or three times a year and I always knew in the back of my mind that this is where I'd end up. Every cross-country move I made brought me closer.
I constantly find myself hotly defending L.A. against those who view it as an engorged, vapid, shallow extension of Hollywood and Beverly Hills, but I have only one firm rule. That is: if you consider yourself both a food lover and an L.A. hater, you might need to readjust one of those attitudes. You can't hold both.
L.A.'s dry sweeping winds, droughts, and brown desert cliffs only charm me and clear my skin; its sprawling vastness only makes for more expansive mountain views for me to enjoy, and its choked traffic and exorbitant valet parking just tempt me to walk or bus everywhere, discovering neighborhoods most people never see speeding (or crawling, as it were) by on the freeways.
One of those neighborhoods, Echo Park, is my home now. Today, I took a walk. And I was hungry.
Luckily, hungry is the best thing to be in L.A.!
There's apparently a cart where a lady makes terrific Oaxacan-style blue corn quesadillas on the corner of Sunset and Echo Park - but this cart remains the stuff of fables for me because I have never been able to find her. Today was no exception. The dusty and largely abandoned parking lot where she supposedly sets up was empty even of men selling chili-salted fruit bags, jangling and clattering ice cream/popsicle carts, and the heavy, greasy smoke of the bacon-wrapped hot dog lady's cooking. Unusual.
So I kept walking. I wandered into a Mexican grocery sandwiched in between two discount clothing stores. The first thing I saw? Papalo! 99 cents per bunch. The second thing? Manila mangoes: four for a dollar.
$1.50 poorer, baking in the sun, trying to peel a mango with one hand, and taking big juicy bites that dripped mango juice all over the concrete, I kept walking.
Sticky-faced, I passed an extraordinarily foofy-looking raw vegan café on the same block as a place that sells hot dogs, quesadillas, 'bibim noodle bowls' and licuados all for less than $8. Pozole from Costa Alegre, trout from Taix, and a machaca burrito from my childhood burrito-serving giant, Burrito King, also failed to beckon me, and my stomach growled ominously. It was too early for Tacos Arizas and its seductive lengua tacos, so I sadly bypassed the Walgreens parking lot.
But hark! What gleamed rainbow-colored from the Vons parking lot? Could it be... an earlier-rising taco truck?
Yes, it could!
The man inside the truck, friendly in an easygoing, chatty way, recommended the carnitas and the cabeza tacos, a recommendation I gladly took. Within two minutes, I had a sturdy plate of meat piled high, fresh, moist tortillas, and liberal sprinklings of cilantro and onions. The bar provided me with two types of green salsa, and I sampled one on each taco.
The darker, waterier tomatillo was deceptively spicy and heavily seeded, and filtered down through every pore of my carnitas, while the creamier cilantro-based sauce sat atop my cabeza like tzatziki. I pulled my bag ofpapalo from my purse and padded each taco with a few leaves. The taco truck proprietor tilted his head curiously: why is that girl adding secret purse ingredients to her taco?
Why are meals eaten perched on a curb so often the most satisfying meals? Is it the constant redirecting of ants from one's feet, or the telltale dusting of dirt on the backside? Is it the knowledge that there is nothing enhancing the quality of the meal, no wall paintings or ceiling hangings, no ingratiating service or padded back cushions, and yet it still makes you smile?
Sun-addled now, with remnants of mango juice, cow and pig parts, and grease likely speckling my face despite multiple wipes with a napkin, I stumbled towards home, but was arrested by the sight of a 300 square foot market featuring such attractions as $7 fig and olive crackers, artisanal olive oil in a giant jug, and prosciutto lined baguettes. Spotting some enormous cookies with the moniker 'Not Nutter Butter', I shrugged. Why not?
And thus did I stagger up the steep, winding incline towards home, letting the granola-like cookie flake away under my tongue as the fine, silky peanut butter melted on top of it.
This is the same hill where I, as a child, I stole loquats from the neighbor's laden trees in April, where I learned that nasturtiums were edible (and spicy), and where I looked out on the San Bernardino mountains while eating lox on bagels on Sunday mornings.
I finally feel, culinarily, very much at home, but it's almost time to be thrust into a completely foreign flavor environment: I leave for Japan in just under a week.